By Trigo Egbegi
I remember 1976, vividly, as the year that witnessed the world of sports capitulate before the machinations of politics.
In a world dominated by strife, the Olympic Games have served as a most effective asset providing peace and unity among the human race. At four yearly intervals, the gathering provides individuals and nations – big or small; rich or poor; Capitalist or Communist/Socialist; Black or White – with the opportunity to participate/compete side by side. The Olympic Games are, indeed, the greatest global sports spectacle. In 1976 in Montreal, Canada, world politics reared its ugly head – perhaps, for a just and worthy cause. The full African Bloc staged a mass walkout of the Games in protest to the participation of New Zealand which had only lately sent its national rugby squad on a playing tour of Apartheid South Africa.
The Games boxing, predictably, was the worst hit, draws turning to shambles as no fewer than 18 nations and their 89 entries withdrew. The move accounted for 70 walkovers, and six no-contests. In the view of some members of the Western Bloc, it demonstrated the disregard of African governments towards their athletes who had sacrificed four years in preparation for this great global spectacle, only to have their once-in-a lifetime dream shattered.
The Western viewpoint remains a far cry from the African perspective, though. Even as painful and expensive as it meant – scuttling the dreams of some of the continents brilliant and talented athletes of the era – it could be adduced that the Montreal sacrifice was a strong and most potent weapon by which to convince the fence-sitting international community and see Apartheid as a ‘black eye’ negating the essence of mankind.
Today, South Africa is a free society where every man enjoys the right to exercise his franchise. It is instructive that the hard-earned right owes much of its root to the same expensive and painful chain of sacrifices made way back in 1976 and immediately thereafter, even though it took close to 20 years to finally pay off.
What was the extent of Nigeria’s involvement in the sacrifice to see South Africa freed from Apartheid, one may ask?
It is on record that this country played a frontline role – and it still does – in every single internal and external crisis that affected the well-being of any fellow African nation of the time. Even, while on the throes of our own economic turmoil, Nigeria never ceased to help solve the problems of others, sparing neither energies, nor resources. At no time did this nation put its own immediate or long-term interest above that of a brother African nation in need.
Thus, it may interest you to know just how much sacrifice might have been made that 1976 night the Federal Government ordered the withdrawal of our team from the Games, even after draws had been made for the boxing event. The entire contingent – including athletes, footballers – was immediately air-lifted back home without second thought.
It is not certain just how many medal hopefuls were denied among the nation’s 1976 Games Boxing squad that comprised Solomon Ataga, Gabriel Daramola, Mathias Sabo, Obisia Nwankpa, Lawrence Obagoriola, Okenwa Ezikpe and Davidson Andeh. Could our boxing have, once again, been counted upon to be the only discipline to redeem the nation’s fortunes in much the way Isaac Ikhuoria gave Team Nigeria its only medal in the form of the light heavyweight bronze four years earlier in Munich, Germany?
In assessing Nigeria’s medals chances in 1976, it may interest readers that boxing in Montreal recorded quite a number of memorable moments, to go with the ‘shame’ of the boycott and the officiating bias which characterized the Games. It was in Montreal 1976 that the sagging United States received a shot in the arm, with five kids striking gold – the highest since 1904 when the country, as host, collected all seven gold and seven silver medals at stake.
Montreal 1976 was the year that witnessed the emergence of the first brother act in Olympic history to win gold: Leon and Michael Spinks striking gold, respectively, in the light heavyweight and middleweight. Both went on to become successful professionals. That was the year that heralded the arrival of 20-year-old Sugar Ray Leonard who was to become the Fabulous One later in the pro boxing ranks.
It was the year 20-year-old Howard Davis Jnr overcame the grief of his mother’s unexpected death to win the Games lightweight gold, in the process emerging undisputed recipient of the Val Barker Trophy, as the Games best boxer. Equally significantly, it was the year 24-year-old giant Teofilo Stevenson became the first man in Olympic heavyweight history to repeat gold, as he led tiny Communist Cuba to the fistic super power status it occupies till this day.
As to how our own boys would have fared on the medal table even if they had competed, consider the factors below:
* Heavyweight Solomon Ataga was walked over in the preliminary round by Finnish entry, Pekka Ruokola, whose immediate reward was a pairing with the awesome Stevenson. Contest was terminated after 1:55min of the opening round following a single right hand to the head.
* Light heavyweight Gabriel Daramola conceded a walk over victory to unknown Andorra rep. Jean Claude Montane, who was taken out inside the distance by East German Ottoman Sachse in his next outing. It is recalled that Ottoman, too, fell by a wide 5-0 decision to Leon Spinks later in the Games quarter finals.
* Welterweight Sabo Mathias was walked over by unfancied Japanese Yoshifumi Seki who was next disqualified against fellow Oriental Juseok Kim, who failed to medal.
* Obisia Nwankpa, was walkover victim of Hungarian Joszef Nagi who was in turn eliminated in the quarters by the Cuban Andres Aldama, eventual Silver medalist (behind Ray Leonard). Nwankpa later embarked on an eventful pro career.
* Lawrence Obagoriola and his Egyptian rival exited in a no-contest following the withdrawal. It is doubtful if either man could have made any impression in a division laden with such standouts as Vasily Solomon (URS), Ace Rusevski (Yugoslavia), Simon Cutov (Romania) and eventual winner, Howard Davis Jnr.
*Davidson Andeh was the baby of the team. Preparatory to the event proper the rangy wonderkid had won the traditional pre-tournament bantamweight silver behind the American Derrick Holmes.
In a space of six months, Andeh had gown to 125 Lbs where he was walked over by unknown Indian SK Rai, who, himself, was predictably kayoed in his next fight by eventual tournament gold medalist Angel Herrera of Cuba. Two years later in Belgrade a more mature Andeh captured the prestigious World Championship lightweight gold to underline his huge potential.
Those were the good old days of our amateur boxing.